Today, we build a university. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I'll bet you've never heard
of Eliphalet Nott. Nott was a child prodigy, born
just before the American Revolution. He was
educated for all of two months at a small college
that later became Brown University. But Nott could
talk. By the age of 25 he was minister of a fancy
church in Albany, New York.
Nott was eloquent. When one parishioner killed
another in a duel, he wrote a sermon that helped
end dueling in America. By the way, those duelers
were Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
At 31 he was made president of Union College.
Religion and classics were all they taught at
Union, but Nott had other ideas, "Go with Newton,"
he cried in his inaugural address. "Span the
heavens and number and measure the orbs."
He added scientists to the four-man faculty. He
married a wealthy widow and began gambling her
fortune on the school. It grew, but Nott wanted
more. He set up a money-raising lottery. By 1830,
Union was our third largest college. Only Harvard
and Yale were bigger. Nott started a basic academic
reform. He was first to divide the curriculum. You
could now major in either science or classics.
Students flocked to the science program.
Nott wanted more. So he turned to invention to
expand the college. He styled himself as a
philosopher of caloric -- of heat -- and he
developed a new stove to burn anthracite coal. He
didn't really know any thermodynamics, but he was a
relentless promoter. By 1832 he was selling his
stove, and he'd killed all its competitors in the
courts. But it was still not enough.
He tried to raise more money by forming a company
to make steamboats. When it went belly-up, trustees
reviewed his tangled finances. Historian George
Wise tells us what they found. He'd used college
funds "interchangeably with his own," and his high
rolling was "dangerous to the morals of the young
... " They struck a deal with Nott. They'd hush the
business up, but he'd give a big chunk his shady
fortunes to the college when he died. He fooled
them on that one. He lived to the ripe age of 92.
By then, Princeton had gone where Nott had tried to
take Union. They'd copied Union's double curriculum
and become our largest university. Union went on to
How would you weigh the life of Eliphalet Nott? I
wouldn't want him for my university president. But
we were just coming out of the forests to invent
America. With a hint of restraint, Nott might've
made Union into one of the great colleges. In the
end, he'd helped create the modern university. More
than that: he'd put on quite a show along the way.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds